There are calls for Russia's newly appointed education minister to explain what she meant when she appeared to praise Joseph Stalin in what is the latest furore over a public figure apparently expressing admiration for the former Soviet dictator. Olga Vasilyeva was appointed to her role on Friday 19 August and had previously praised the "efficiency" of the Stalin period.

She had once claimed in a lecture in 2013 that Stalin's purges were both "necessary at the time" and "exaggerated" in history books, according to the Moscow Times.

But Borukh Gorin, the head of the Cultural Relations Department of The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, told the newspaper said that it was a "bad sign" if Vasilyeva stood by her comments and he compared Stalin apologists with Holocaust deniers.

"An entire class of people was eliminated along with freedom of expression, and post-revolutionary enthusiasm was replaced with fear," he said of Stalin who was behind the deaths of an estimated 30 million people.

Seen as a religious conservative who wants to make the Russian Orthodox faith a key focus of education, 56-year-old Vasilyeva had been deputy head of the civic projects department whose stated aim is to bolster patriotism and spiritual well-being among citizens.

A top-level source in the Ministry of Education told Vedemosti that her appointment was an "extremely conservative move which would make religious education a priority", and that despite the need to increase global competitiveness, "we are taking a course towards greater insularity".

The controversy follows huge criticism of the former Archpriest Vsevlod Chaplin who in a radio interview declared his support for Stalin, as well as other Russian leaders like Ivan the Terrible.

Olga Vasilyeva
Russia's new education minister Olga Vasilyeva Wikimedia Commons

Of Stalin, Chaplin said: "He did a lot. At the end of it all, what's so bad about destroying internal enemies?

"There are some people you should kill. Even God, if we read the Old and New Testaments, directly authorised the destruction of a large number of people as a message to others. Not as a punishment or revenge, but as edification.

"Sometimes societies need the destruction of those who are worthy of destruction," he told Echo Moscow radio station, which has since said it would not have him on air again. Until last year, Chaplin was a spokesman for Patriarch Kirill, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian newspaper Gazeta.ru reported Chaplin's words about Stalin were dangerous: "Because they helped make cruelty into an accepted norm of thought and action".

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, pictured in 2012, praised Joseph Stalin in a radio interview Reuters